The OfS will do all it can to protect students and their interests.
There has been a fair amount of news coverage of the Office for Students over the last few months, but today we become operational as the independent regulator for higher education in England.
Our job is to make sure that every student, whatever, wherever and however they are studying, has a fulfilling experience of higher education which enriches their lives and careers.
We are also concerned to ensure that employers have the flow of highly skilled workers that they need, that the substantial public subsidy for teaching that still flows into higher education is well spent, and that teaching and research are mutually reinforcing. But ultimately we are about students.
This focus on students represents a shift. In the past, regulation has tended to focus on institutions, and league tables have been structured around research performance.
This is not to say that students have been neglected. Indeed, deeply committed and talented university lecturers and tutors have educated and inspired thousands of students over the years. But the national systems and structures have tended to look in another direction, and as a consequence some students have lost out.
1. Tackling disadvantage
As from today, our first strategic priority will be students who lose out because of their background. Although more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are in higher education than ever before, there is so much more work to do.
Where you come from in your life is still the most significant factor in where you end up. There are still stark gaps in degree outcomes and employment for different groups of students.
We will be working with universities and colleges, along with schools, employers and the third sector, to invest in what works best to address these gaps.
2. Teaching and positive experiences
Second, we want to ensure that students’ experience in higher education is positive, and that students receive high quality teaching, learning and support.
Fundamental to this is ensuring that students have the information, advice and guidance that they need to make informed decisions about what and where to study. If they make the wrong choice, then it is very hard for even the highest quality teaching to make up for that wrong choice.
We have to do far more, working with schools, employers and careers advisers, to do all we can to ensure applicants to university and college are given robust and reliable information about the huge diversity of courses that are available that match their needs and aspirations.
3. Improving student outcomes
Third, it is our job to make sure that universities and colleges improve student outcomes.
This generation of students is graduating at an extraordinary time – exciting and challenging in equal measure. People who are students now will do jobs that have not even been conceived of yet.
We need to be sure that universities and colleges are doing all they can to secure positive outcomes for their students not just when they graduate but for years into a profoundly uncertain future.
4. Value for money
Finally, we have a duty to make sure that students receive value for money.
Research that we commissioned earlier this year from a consortium of student unions showed that only a third of students believe their course offers good value for money. The responses were varied and made many different points.
However, overall the students surveyed told us that the three most important factors which demonstrate value for money were the quality of teaching, good assessment and feedback, and learning resources. I was particularly struck by these findings.
Clearly graduate outcomes and salaries are important to students and figured highly on the list of what they cared about when choosing to go into higher education. But for this group of students it was the teaching, learning and feedback in a supportive environment that mattered.
This was not a narrow transactional view of higher education. It was something far more inclusive, generous and inspirational than that.
Listening to students
This research report goes to the heart of how the Office for Students must take forward its responsibilities. We must listen to students’ voices, including – and perhaps even especially - where they are critical, and respond in an optimistic and aspirational way.
The panel includes current undergraduate and postgraduate students, recent graduates and prospective students, university and college based. Many hold elected office, and we are delighted that the (newly re-elected) President of the National Union of Students is a member.
The panel will offer us critical advice on our operations and help us develop a wider plan for student engagement which takes account of England’s nearly two million students.
We are serious about our responsibilities. We have extensive powers which we can and will use if we believe that higher education providers are not meeting their obligations to students. We will of course be wanting to work constructively and respectively with universities and colleges.
But nobody should be in any doubt that we will do all we can and use all our powers to protect students and their interests.